Cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—one piece at a time

Thursday, 8 June 2017 14:53 GMT

Mandy Barker

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* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has caught on in the media in recent years, often conjuring up imagery of a vast patch of floating garbage in the Pacific Ocean. While you can’t really see the patch with the naked eye—a “soup” of microplastics with scattered trash swirling around, to be exact—the plastic plague is much more visible and much closer to home than you think.

To catch a glimpse of the plague all you need to do is join a cleanup at a local beach. This was what I did on a blistering summer day at Lap Sap Wan (i.e. Rubbish Bay in Cantonese), one of the most polluted areas along the coastline of Hong Kong. Located near the city’s only marine reserve, Lap Sap Wan is not the kind of pristine bay you would expect. Rather, it is literally a rubbish heap by the sea as its name suggests. With trash piled up to over two feet it was not a pleasant walk—with every step I would sink up to my ankles, waving my hand to fan away the stink of rotten garbage (and the dead fish buried in it), which only grew stronger with the heat.

Rubbish Bay: a microcosm of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

What was disturbing about this was not just the sheer amount of trash, but what the trash was made up of: much of it consisted of plastic bottles and lids, plastic bags, straws, styrofoam lunch boxes, plastic cutlery, and food packagings—plastics that we tossed away mindlessly after a single use. While their “working life” can be numbered in minutes, plastics can last for years as they cannot biodegrade. In fact, it is estimated that 89% of the 185-tonne garbage in the bay is plastic. Even though this is in no way comparable to the millions of plastics bobbing in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, if the plastics are not cleaned up they will break up into microplastics and probably end up in one of the five Garbage Patches in our oceans.

This is when the problem becomes even more poignant: marine species feed on microplastics, choosing these synthetic flakes over real food. And it concerns not just the species “out there.” Research shows that plastics have already made their way into the fish and shellfish we eat. Although similar studies have yet to be carried out in Hong Kong waters, a clip by Sea Shepherd Hong Kong reveals that plastic pollution is already plaguing local fish farms.

Back at Lap Sap Wan, we found traces of fish nibbling on plastics. Tracey Read, Founder of Plastic Free Seas, put on a worn-out plastic glove and pointed at the holes in it. The holes were not caused by wear and tear; they were in fact fish bite marks. These are evidence of the plastic plague in its rawest form, showing how we are all affected regardless of how far we are away from the Garbage Patches.

Local beaches: crucial battlegrounds against plastic pollution

Having travelled to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch on a research expedition, Tracey sees the local garbage patches, like the one at Lap Sap Wan, as crucial battlegrounds in the fight against the global plastic pollution: “By getting people to the beaches and having them see first hand the scale of the problem is a powerful tool. We always take this opportunity to show people fish-bitten plastics and explain that the plastic is getting in our food chain. It is shocking to see this evidence. Making these local and personal connections is how we tackle the garbage patches in the middle of the oceans, because unless we stop all the plastic rubbish from getting in the water in the first place, we will not be able to clean up the great garbage patches.”

It is estimated that 80% of plastic waste comes from land; meanwhile, the city throws away 1200-2000 tonnes of plastic waste every day. Getting rid of plastic waste on land seems to be the fastest way forward. While Tracey led and mobilized thousands of volunteers to retrieve some of the 150-tonne plastic pellets during the massive spill in 2012, since then hundreds of new beach cleanup groups have joined her in cleaning Hong Kong’s shores in the wake of the crisis. Plastic Free Seas alone has organized hundreds of beach cleanups which are “not just about cleaning rubbish out of the sea, but also as a way to teach people the solutions.”

Each of us can help, one piece at a time

One of these solutions is to avoid single-use plastics. It is estimated that around half of the plastics produced are used only once and thrown away. “Most commonly we see plastic food and drink packagings, straws, bottles caps and takeaway food containers,” Tracey recalled from her cleanup experience. “One recent cleanup collected 500 plastic straws, and shockingly 125 straws among them had bite marks in them from fish.”

Local initiatives are already in action. In fact, the “No Straw” campaign just kicked off in Hong Kong on World Oceans Day today, urging people to join the war against straw that has sprung up in many places around the world.

This is just one of the many things each of us can start doing today. Tracey shared three more ways to help save our oceans from the plastic plague:

  1. Look at what single-use plastics you use frequently—usually they are drink bottles, bags, straws, coffee cups, and cutlery.  Get yourself reusable alternatives and start breaking away from the throw-away culture.
  2. Do not use the excuse of “I will recycle the plastic.”  Much of the plastics we use don’t get recycled.
  3. Pick up trash if you see it on the ground or the beach. Set an example for others to follow. Because if each of us is committed to cleaning up the plastics around us, starting with one piece at a time, we can eventually clean up the global plastic mess we left in our oceans.